Why “It’s Just a Joke” Doesn’t Cut it When Men Make Mean Sex Jokes

by | Jul 10, 2024 | Abuse | 25 comments

Sam Jolman on men telling inappropriate jokes

A few months ago, I went viral on Twitter when I shared that atrocious clip of Josh Howerton telling women to “do what he tells you to do” on “his” wedding night.

Many of Howerton’s supporters, and Howerton himself, said it was “just a joke.”

Sam Jolman, who was on our podcast in June with his new book The Sex Talk You Never Got, wrote an amazing post about the “It’s just a joke” defence. I so appreciate men speaking up on this, and I asked Sam if I could re-run his post so my audience could see it.

So here is Sam!

Sheila Wray Gregoire

Bare Marriage

Sam Jolman

If it’s just a joke, does no one get hurt?

I stood on the sideline of my son’s soccer game on a Saturday morning, as I do a lot with three boys.

The familiar cadre of parents huddled together, chatting as we did, readying ourselves to cheer on our team of boys. I caught up with one of the men about all the stuff of dad life and work and his latest home repair. And right mid-conversation he cracked a sex joke about his wife. It really degraded her. And she was standing right next to him, right in the middle of the whole group of parents. Though I was the intended audience for the joke, he’d said it loud and proud enough that everyone looked our way. I felt pinned by eyeballs, everyone wondering how I as a man would respond to another man’s sex joke.

For anyone who’s spent time around the world of men (all of us), this moment may be all too familiar.

You get that men and sex jokes is a whole thing. But don’t roll your eyes and dismiss it as guys being dumb and sex obsessed. There is so much more going on here than boys will be boys. And on a soccer field on a Saturday morning, all those forces converged on me and this fellow dad. We need to unpack that so we know what to do with the bind these jokes force us into. 

Men making sex jokes is making the news again these days as it does in the regular churn.

Recently during a Sunday sermon, Baptist megachurch pastor Josh Howerton gave out some wedding advice to newlyweds that went like this. “Ladies, when you get to his wedding night, he’s been planning this night his whole life. So what you need to do is stand where he tells you to stand, wear what he tells you to wear, and do what he tells you to do. You’re going to make him the happiest man in the world.” It was the punchline to the idea that the wedding day is for the woman, making the wedding night for the man. And the audience applauded and laughed right along.

It lands right on the nose as terrible, even harmful advice for any bride. It scripts the wedding night and sex itself as a man’s possession and his every fantasy as the obligation of his new bride. And it harms the groom by divorcing romance and love (i.e the wedding day) from being anything a guy would want. Real men just want sex.

The folly of his advice sparked understandable public outcry on social media.

But others swiftly came to his aid with one main defense: It was all just a joke! As if that settles it and nothing more needs to be said. Josh himself attempted an apology but couldn’t resist the urge to double down that it was still just a joke, to even more applause. The message was clear: Something is wrong with you if you can’t laugh.

I am not here to talk about Josh himself. I don’t know the man. And though he is culpable for his own words, Josh put on display for us all something that is far bigger than himself: the implicit bro code among men around sex jokes. Men are trained to blend humor and harm (especially sexual harm) and then dismiss it away as a joke. Like a politician’s use of “thoughts and prayers” to excuse them from taking any further action on an issue, men use “it’s just a joke” like some magical mantra, to inoculate the power of their words, end all argument, and dismiss any further accountability. If you are offended, it’s on you. It’s your issue.

Whether conscious or not, Josh performed flawlessly this masculine ritual inherited from the broader world of men. And the broader world of men knew they needed to play right along, back him up, and double down that its a joke. And they did.

Here’s another headline example: While playing the Genesis Open last year, Tiger Woods out drove his partner Justin Thomas on the ninth hole. As they walked off together, Tiger came up next to Justin and slipped him a tampon, an obvious attempt at a joke. The punchline is clear, right? You hit like a girl. Or maybe worse, that shot was so weak, you’re a p*ssy. The camera caught the exchange and the smile on their faces. And the internet had opinions about it. Many (mostly female) sports commentators called the action sexist, making femininity and female anatomy an insult. While others (mostly men) backed him up again by saying its just a joke!

And you guessed it, during a press conference, Tiger pulled out the magical get out of accountability free card and said, “It was supposed to be all fun and games, and obviously it hasn’t turned out that way. If I offended anybody, it was not the case; it was just friends having fun.”

Again do you hear it? We’re just having fun with some locker room antics. And magically, that means no one got hurt. So if you’re offended, its on you.

What Humor Theory Tells Us

That assumption, even outright claim, that no one was actually hurt and so just relax, has interesting roots in research done on what actually creates humor. It’s called the Benign Violation theory of humor and it goes like this.

Humor requires two things to be funny: first, a violation of accepted etiquette, cultural or human norms, or moral code. And second, that simultaneously the violation is harmless or benign.

Think Looney Tunes or every single Office episode. We all know no one on these shows is actually falling off cliffs or suffering a self-absorbed clueless boss. So we laugh. But in real life, if someone slipped from a cliff or a boss told racist jokes at work, we would be horrified. We wouldn’t laugh because we could see the very real harm. Here’s the summary again from the researchers. “The benign-violation hypothesis predicts that people who see the behavior as both a violation and benign will be amused. Those who do not simultaneously see both interpretations will not be amused.”

Pay attention to that summary.

Humor hinges entirely on the second element—our perception of harm.

Violations of morals and human norms happen all the time. People slip and fall, say rude or mean things, wear embarrassing clothes. Yet they only become funny when we are convinced it caused no harm. But what if someone is actually injured by the violation part of the joke? It’s possible we just don’t know it because they hide the pain.

But what if the pain is being spoken out loud? What if people are speaking up for the injured? And what if you’ve been told it caused harm because people have brought it to you? Then, the only other conclusion here is that the one laughing has closed his heart to the harm. He feels no pain for the person on the other side of the punch line. The laughter reveals the numb heart of the laugher.

Proverbs puts it this way:

Like a maniac shooting flaming arrows of death is one who deceives their neighbor and says, “I was only joking!”

Proverbs 26:18,19

A reckless maniac has lost his mind. A careless jokester has lost his heart.

Masculine Initiation and Numbing

Journalist Peggy Orenstein has devoted a portion of her career to studying the sexual development of young men. In her book Boys & Sex, She made a profound observation about their use of humor:

 “Hilarious is another way under pretext of horseplay, or group bonding, that boys learn to disregard other’s feelings as well as their own. Hilarious is a safe haven, a default position when something is inappropriate, confusing, upsetting, depressing, unnerving, or horrifying; when something is simultaneously sexually explicit and dehumanizing… when it evokes any of the emotions meant to otherwise stay safely behind the wall. Hilarious offers distance, allowing them to subvert a more compassionate response that could be read as weak, overly sensitive, or otherwise unmasculine.”

Peggy Orenstein

Turns out, making things funny, especially sexual things, is the way our broken male culture grooms men to shut down their hearts. She found examples of guys laughing away body insults, racist jokes, and even actual rape—all very real examples of harm. And yet, by shutting down the heart they become funny. Or put better, by intentionally calling them jokes, it shuts down the heart.  Making jokes is how men train themselves to become heartless, numb to themselves and others, keeping life’s deeper, more robust and courageous emotions at bay.

You may remember the story from a few years ago of Brock Turner, the Stanford university swimmer convicted of sexual assault. He got caught by two men, Peter Jonsson and Carl-Frederik Arndt, who, while out on a bike ride, found him raping Chanel Miller behind a dumpster. While Arndt attended to the unconscious victim, Jonsson chased Turner who tried to flee the scene. When he tackled him, Turner was smiling. Horrified, Jonsson asked, “What are you smiling for?” Later at trial, when questioned by the district attorney, Turner said he had laughed because he found the situation “ridiculous.”

Take that in for a second: A man wrote off raping a woman as Ridiculous. Hilarious. Funny.

There are real and actual victims here. Women are the punchline in all these situations. That soccer dad trashed his wife. Tiger Woods degraded women, making femininity and female anatomy an insult. This is misogyny. Full stop. And Josh Howerton set women up to be abused sexually within their marriage. As Sheila Wray Gregoire said so well, “Marital rape is not funny. Normalizing sexual coercion is not funny. Not caring at all about female pleasure is not funny. If you think this is funny, you might want to ask the women in your life if they find you safe and kind.”

All these men had a chance to drop the laughter and own the harm. None of them did.

What wild alchemy have we wrought in male culture through our sex jokes? Even after being confronted by real and obvious harm these men persisted in their laughter and stayed numb. But it’s not simply others that suffer. We numb ourselves too. Rather than exploring the deeper, more courageous realms of human experience, we laugh ourselves heartless. A bobblehead zombie.

Our job, like Car Frederik and Peter, is to resist the joke and let our hearts show up. When these men gave their report to the police, they broke down crying. In the face of a laughing rapist, they stayed human.

Defusing the Bomb

As I stood on that soccer field, all eyes on me, I felt the masculine expectation from this fellow dad that of course I’d laugh along. That pull to go along to belong is so strong. But thank God I had the presence of mind and the courage in the moment to not laugh. It made the moment very, very awkward. And I knew in my heart of hearts those crickets were exactly what he and I and everyone around us needed. It was the only way he’d feel the weight of his harm to his wife.

But I wished I’d done more.

I heard advice from Heather Thompson Day that has stayed with me. She said one of the best things you can do when invited to laugh along with a sex joke is act like you don’t get it. Ask them to explain the punch line. Because as soon as they are cornered to explain the joke, it exposes the heartlessness behind it. Nothing exposes the harm of a joke like asking for the punchline.

Maybe making it awkward will lead a man to search for his heart. It certainly made me look for mine.

Thanks to Sam for sharing this post, and do check out my podcast with Sam Jolman

Now, what do you think? How do you respond when a joke like that is told in public? How can we make change? Let’s talk in the comments!

Written by

Sheila Wray Gregoire


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Sheila Wray Gregoire

Author at Bare Marriage

Sheila is determined to help Christians find biblical, healthy, evidence-based help for their marriages. And in doing so, she's turning the evangelical world on its head, challenging many of the toxic teachings, especially in her newest book The Great Sex Rescue. She’s an award-winning author of 8 books and a sought-after speaker. With her humorous, no-nonsense approach, Sheila works with her husband Keith and daughter Rebecca to create podcasts and courses to help couples find true intimacy. Plus she knits. All the time. ENTJ, straight 8

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  1. Angharad

    My primary school teacher always used to say “It’s only a joke if everyone finds it funny.” Seems like a few of our preachers should listen to her advice!

    I think the suggestion of acting like you don’t get the joke is a good one, although mostly, you are going to end up getting comments like “you’ve got no sense of humour” or “you must be really dumb not to get it” in return because mostly, these kind of people know deep down that what they are saying is wrong, and so when they feel called out by your response, they tend to get angry and defensive.

  2. Jo R

    There are a horrifying number of Christian men who can’t find their wives’ clitorises with a map and a flashlight, and of those that can, another horrifying number don’t know what to do when they get there.

    For the cohort that’s supposed to be “so good at sex,” pointing out these ACTUAL FACTS makes men get all hurt, mad, and defensive. Women aren’t even joking about it, and men have negative reactions.

    What’s up with that, my dudes? Can’t take a little straight truth? Would it be less painful if women wrapped it up in jokes?

    • Nessie

      I’ve seen some online comments in the past several months complaining about how men are portrayed idiotically in sitcoms and the like, and how women are terrible for making fun of men in that way. Maybe those complaining need to self-evaluate how they think and speak about women as well. Let’s not forget too how women were portrayed in many shows decades ago. Now that the shoe is on the other foot, all of a sudden it’s wrong? Nope, it was always wrong. The difference is we (at least many women) aren’t telling them they simply can’t take a joke.

      I wonder how much social media, the immediacy of thoughts being shared and with so many people who positively reinforce them with shares, thumbs up, etc., and similar stuff has impacted how much worse we treat one another…

      • Jo R

        No doubt that social media can have some negative effects.

        But it also allows women like me to find out that no, I’m not alone, that yes, I’ve been spiritually abused, and that no, I’m not actually crazy.

        It also allows outsiders to point out and rebuke wrong teaching that is so rampant in the church. Even if a church or other organization disallows, say, comments on blog posts or videos, said blog posts or videos can be linked on other people’s sites and SM, where the original authors can’t hide, by blocking certain users or otherwise limiting much-needed rebuke and correction.

        Like many things, SM is a tool and essentially neutral in and of itself. Will some people abuse it? Of course. But other people, lots of other people, are finding healing.

        And some of us may eventually find the real Jesus, who has been hidden from so many of us for so long.

        (I know full well, Nessie, that you know all this. My comment is for those who may be unsure, in the early stages of discovery and recovery, etc.)

        • Nessie

          I appreciate that! 😀 Definitely 2 sides to every coin.

      • Shoshana

        When men complain about how men are portrayed as idiots in sitcoms, etc., I always point out that most of those shows were written by men. So how are women making fun of men when it is male writers writing those scripts? Most men don’t know how to respond to that one (including my ex husband). OTOH, there is a history of women being portrayed as stupid bimbos or doing stupid stuff on TV, also written mostly by men. My ex husband, again never one to think about this stuff, would say,”Isn’t that just like a woman to act so stupid or screw up!!!”. Uh, those were female characters on shows written by men as I would point out to him. Women characters acting stupid written by men are not actually real women. He probably still doesn’t get it.

  3. Phil

    This is absolutely well written and spot on. I cant begin to tell you how much I really like this article. I really like the the idea of injecting awkwardness. This reminds me of what I do when some guy at a plant I might be working at tries to show me porn or some inappropriate picture joke or video. I usually tell them I don’t do that or I don’t go there. I am also good for a blank stare or pending who it is look away and walk away. I like the please explain plan. Gonna put that in my pocket. I have also been known To say thats garbage but that is a little bit more aggressive. I will admit to struggling with portions of the interview with Sam but I am actually considering buying his book after reading this. Hmmff…

  4. Jane Eyre

    I have long believed that in order for a joke to be funny, the person who is being poked at must also find it funny.

    Some man made a sex joke about his wife? The humour hinges on whether or not she can, while maintaining g her dignity, laugh. Otherwise, it’s bullying or cruelty.

    Doug Wilson wants to make a joke about women not receiving pleasure and tenderness on their wedding night? Well, we keep our dignity or we can laugh, but not both, so it’s not a joke and it isn’t funny.

  5. EOF

    The Tiger Woods thing reminds me of the scene in the Other Guys with the Prius scene. (The joke is about the Prius being a vagina.) I found that horribly offensive and hated the movie because of it. It, of course, is one of my STBX’s favorite movies. He thinks it’s sooo funny and never failed to bring up, on many occasions, what a bad mood I was in that day because otherwise I’d have found it as funny as he did. I will never find that joke funny.

    Why is pushing women down and making fun them funny? Why is it okay?

    • Taylor

      It’s very strange how it’s so funny to openly put women down sexually in public and in private, but women are supposed to openly flatter men sexually so that the male ego can’t possibly be injured.

      Why are women expected to have a sense of humor about being intentionally degraded, while at the same time coddling supposed male sexual fragility? And why are men encouraged to be sexually oversensitive to anything like the word “no,” and women are not allowed to be “sensitive” to open insult? It all stinks of DARVO.

      Verbal sexual harassment of wives, while calling it a joke, is not even close to “husband’s love your wives, as Christ loves the church.”

      • Lisa Johns

        Makes me want to ask them if they think Jesus would talk about His bride like that.

        • EOF

          Good point, although I have to wonder what kind of a Jesus they’re following by the way they talk.

  6. Marina

    It reminds me of school children who bully each other, then switch to “I was just joking!” when the teacher shows up. Are you really as funny as you think you are if you have to rely on jokes with a cruel edge to them?
    I tend to be skeptical of peoples’ “senses of humor” anyway, until I somewhat know a person. The Roman Coliseum and public executions were once considered good entertainment, after all. The general public can be far crueler than many give them credit for.

  7. Sandy Williams

    I adored the part about giving someone the opportunity to “find their heart”. That’s what Jesus would do, I believe.

  8. Taylor

    A male teacher made me the butt of sex jokes in front of the class. Twice. I was 16. And shy. And one of the most covered-up girl in the whole school. Everyone laughed. I felt so humiliated, violated, and degraded. And I had to return to class every day and face this teacher and the students who laughed, until the end of the school year.

    It took me years to let go of the shame and put it on who it belonged to–a dirty old man who had no business being anywhere near minors.

    Contrast. Also in high-school, I was with a group of friends and chatting with a guy. At one point he said something inappropriate, loudly, on purpose as an attention seeking joke. I froze, because I was shocked. All eyes were on me. My younger brother stood up, flipping his chair in the process, marched and said, “you wanna mess with my sister?” We all kind-of laughed it off. But my brother made it clear that he didn’t like how I was being treated. The other guy never tried anything like that with me again. And it’s still a significant memory to me.

    • Laura

      Throughout junior high and high school, I was sexually harassed by the boys. The people who were in earshot of it would tell me these guys were just joking and I was being overly sensitive. Some of these people were girls. How could these same girls think it was a joke? I bet they wouldn’t feel that way if they were being harassed.

    • Erica Tate

      What a wonderful brother. <3
      My brother did things like that for my sisters and me too.

      • Taylor

        Here’s to all the brothers who’ve stood up for their sisters. Keep spreading the integrity and the courage.

    • Lisa Johns

      What an awesome brother! I love that!

  9. Tim

    A comedian complaining about their audience is like a sailor complaining about the sea. There’s not much more tiresome. If you want to be a professional communicator of any variety and a significant proportion of your audience misunderstands your point, it’s a you problem!

    • Tim

      Just in case it’s not obvious, that was in response to the issues raised in this post in general, not the stories about sexual harassment it came up as a reply to!

      And sorry those things happened to you, Laura and Taylor!

  10. Lisa Johns

    The benign violation hypothesis is predicated on the potential of very *real* harm. So asking the jokester to explain the joke is the best way to bring that home to anyone in the vicinity. Better than calling them out, better than trying to explain how it makes you feel, better than simply not laughing. Ask them to explain, and watch them begin to cringe at their very own comment. In a world of extremely crude humor and extremely heartless men, this is desperately needed.
    I so appreciate Sam’s thoughtfulness in working through these thoughts and expressing them so clearly for us. Thank you.

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Yes! I think that’s a great strategy. I just don’t always know if I’d have the guts to do it in person.

  11. Anonymous

    Sisera: [makes sexist joke as he drinks his milk and settles down to sleep.]
    Jael: “haha. That’s so funny, Sisera. Now, why don’t you take your rest?”

    Seriously, I love this article. I’ve heard the best way to disarm a bully is the blank stare and then an arm around the victim, followed by, let’s get outta here.

    Also great reference to the verse from Proverbs.

    The Bible actually has a lot to say about the power of words and how, as believers, we are to use them. And the point is clearly about the impact on the hearer and the character of the speaker, not the number of laughs or follows the speaker gets.

    The more I read the Bible, the more I see how all these big pastors who fancy themselves Bible
    scholars completely miss those points, instead policing certain sins while also ignoring the justice, compassion, character development, and fruit of the Spirit that come from growing closer to Jesus and taking in the whole counsel of God.

  12. CMT

    Thought-provoking. I think it’s pretty common to see (cruel) humor used as a defense mechanism against empathy and vulnerability. Makes you wonder *why* someone might feel the need to defend against healthy, natural human experiences.

    Something else worth noticing is the power dynamic in all these examples. Who decides what violations are benign? The people with the most social power. So these unfunny jokes are usually at the expense of those the “bro code” considers other or weak-women, LGBTQ+ folks, people with disabilities, and so on. This is why “punching up” is so empowering, and why it’s so effective to refuse to laugh at cruel humor.


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